Monday, June 29, 2015

In Praise of 45

In this post:

  • Great music.
  • Reflections on the music of the 1970s.
  • A birthday request.
When I was your age, you didn't download a song off the internet. You didn't even listen to it streaming on the internet. You didn't even order it from a store on the internet. You bought it at the mall, and you took it home, and you took it out of a paper sleeve, and you put it on a record player. And a needle read that song off a disc spinning at 45 revolutions per minute.

I have today reached the age of 45, and yet I grew up in the age of 45s - a generation much like this, in which singles are king and full length albums are for suckers. The pop age of today is like the disco age of my youth, when older artists struggled to remain relevant while young, fresh faces put confection after forgettable confection in front of children and encouraged them to imbibe. Rarely can a child appreciate the full canon of an artist's work, reaching past the hits to the deep tracks that extend the listening time of the slow-spinning LP record. A child's world is pop-pop-pop, defined by the radio and (soon enough) the video. Two songs by the same artist--the A side of the 45, reserved for the officially released, radio-friendly track, and the B side, often assumed to be a throwaway just filling empty space--test the tolerance of a kid, let alone a full album's worth; 33-1/3 revolutions per minute are, with few exceptions, wasted on the young.

So, when I was a kid, I rarely listened to full-length albums, preferring instead to play the A side of a 45 and, if I were inspired or even just lazy, flipping the 45 over and listening to the B side. The two 45s seared into my memory from childhood are very different from one another, but I loved them both.

The Ballad of John and Yoko

"The Ballad of John and Yoko" is a jaunty, jaded journey through Europe. Performed by the Beatles, it's a song of a particular moment, a commentary on his current reality that would come to characterize much of John Lennon's solo work. I have no idea what John is singing at times, but I like this song a lot, particularly Paul McCartney's background harmonies and prominent bass line. On the B side was "Old Brown Shoe," written by George Harrison. More a product of its era, it sounds unlike most Beatles songs, foreshadowing again George's solo work to come. This song was a rocker, and I loved it in a way that made me more open to B sides and other deep tracks to come.
Old Brown Shoe

The other 45 I wore out as a kid featured two songs by, of all people, Nancy Sinatra. Like the Beatles 45, I inherited this from some uncle or second-cousin-once-removed; I would never have found it on my own, because even if it had graced the radio in its first release, those days were more than a decade gone. But its tracks reflect an entirely different popular genre from the Beatles. Hers was what came to be known as "incidental music," the music of camp. "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" is as American as the Beatles were British; it had a great, catchy bass line too.The boots were surely go-go boots, zipped all the way up to the thigh.

I was, frankly, less likely to flip this 45 over from the A side to the B side, but I was occasionally in the mood for "The City Never Sleeps at Night." There's a 60s-era New York sensibility to this track that I like.

These songs exiss as singular entities, but they also play off each other, A side and B side, to give a fuller portrait of the artist. We consume the A side, we discover the B side. You don't get a B side when you download a song off iTunes; music streaming services leave artists behind after one track in search of something sonically similar. The gateways between music consumption and musical discovery are no longer easily accessible to us.

For my birthday this year, I'm hoping you'll accompany me on a journey of musical discovery. I'm asking you to recommend 45s to me - two songs by artists you appreciate: a popular, released track, along with deeper tracks that are less familiar to the masses but that demonstrate why you're a fan. List them here in the comments, post links to my social media, whatever you like. I hope you'll include in your recommendations a comment on what makes these songs great for you, or a story that explains why they linger in your memory.

I'll expand my musical library based on what you recommend. And if I'm not too intimidated by the technology, I'll build a playlist of all your recommendations on Spotify, so we can discover some great music together. "A splendid time," John Lennon once promised from the B side, "is guaranteed for all."

Monday, June 22, 2015

My Top Five Superheroes (and Why)

My sister asked me, the other day, to list my top five superheroes. She may have been fishing for birthday ideas; she may have been looking for ways to raise her son's standards higher than Hawkeye. Whatever the case, I gladly listed the following (in order):

  1. Daredevil
  2. Batman
  3. Robin
  4. Captain America
  5. Moon Knight
I struggled more than I expected to finish this list. The top three were easy; the bottom two were hard, and I suspect that I'll second-guess this list even before I post it. But I do notice some commonalities:

  • None of these heroes is super-powered at a cosmic level. There is no Superman or Hulk. Captain America is, of course, a "super soldier," and was recently listed among the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel Universe, but his power is essentially enhanced strength, coupled with shocking discipline and focus, and high moral character.
  • Only two of these heroes are not in the Marvel Comics universe, and those two (Batman and Robin) are tightly connected to each other.
  • Only one of these heroes has a public identity; the rest are in the shadows, although they have a tight network of supporters who know their secret.
  • Each of these heroes is associated with a particular place.
Daredevil, as ably demonstrated in the Netflix series of the same name, sets his focus on Hell's Kitchen in New York, a neighborhood that has never enjoyed the benefits of New York's hubris. While the Avengers are saving New York from giant robotic lizards coursing through a wormhole to another universe in the skies above, Daredevil is confronting drug dealers and dismantling crime networks in the same span of city blocks he grew up in and refuses to leave.

Batman and Robin are inextricably identified with Gotham City, which is Superman's Metropolis after the lights have gone out. Although their adventures have taken them to the farthest reaches of time and space, Gotham remains a principal character in their story. It's no surprise, in fact, that the city has its own television series; place matters supremely in the Batman universe.

Captain America's association is right there in his name. He was created jingoistically; his first cover shot as a superhero showed him punching Adolf Hitler in the nose. In his first iteration during World War II he was a salute to the greatness of his country of origin, but in subsequent iterations, beginning in the comics in the 1960s during widespread civil unrest and carrying over into contemporary films with the cynical sensibility of the postmodern age, he represents the tension between our sense of our national potential and our unease of our tragically flawed history as a country.

Of all five superheroes, Moon Knight is my least familiar and also the most tenuous connection to a place. Whatever power he has comes from Egypt, but he locates himself in New York - except when he doesn't, when he moves to the West Coast or meanders throughout the world. There's a kind of schizophrenia to Moon Knight's story; his superhero persona is only one of the many characters he plays in his life, and his sense of dislocation does damage to his relationships and even his psyche. Maybe that's why I'm so intrigued by him; Moon Knight is what happens to us when we aspire to greatness but lose sight of our placedness.

Obviously there's more to the story than placedness with these characters. Three of the five have capes; two of them don't. I don't think that's overly significant, although a childhood fascination with comic book superheroes surely has something to do with the color and fluidity of the art. It's sort of trendy to claim that placedness is the primary driver of my hierarchy of superheroes; I recognize that. But the fact that place is one of the particularly cool things about these heroes is not lost on me, and I wonder how much their broad acceptance in the broader culture (with the exception of the relatively rootless Moon Knight, all of them have a strong foothold in pop culture) is tied to the idea that a particular place breeds a particular kind of hero - the hero a place needs, the hero each of us could commit ourselves to being.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Charlie Chaplin: The Cautionary Tale of a Missional Genius

My boss sometimes takes me to bookstores. It's not a habit of mine, oddly enough, even though I'm a book editor and a lifelong reader. It's the sort of thing I'm supposed to equate with nerd heaven, and I do enjoy it, but it's not something I regularly indulge in.

But when my boss takes me to a bookstore, I like to pick something up, especially when the bookstore is an independent. Most recently we went to the Tattered Cover in Denver, a sprawling store in the classic sense. Picture tall shelves with rolling ladders. Picture effusive recommendations from staff. Don't picture music or teapots or "Readers do it spine-out" bumper stickers; true believers don't need such ornamentations. Tattered Cover is a booklover's bookstore.

I wandered the shelves, making mental notes, but the book I bought was in the last place I looked: Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life is a relatively new biography of the most celebrated actor of the silent film era, the first worldwide celebrity, the icon of a generation. I've watched many (though by no means most) of his films and remember Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal from the 1990s, but I'd not dug into his story. Now seemed as good a time as any.

Watch early talkie movies and you'll quickly see how married to the stage the medium was. The actors deliver their lines to the back row of the theater, not to the overhead boom, and their reactions are exaggerated in ways that film doesn't require. It was in the silent era, the age celebrated in the recent film The Artist, that the particular strengths of film as a new medium were explored and tested. One director cut every fourth film cell to his action scenes to give a heightened sense of frenzy; chases and other intricate scenes were carefully choreographed so that the impossible seemed both unavoidable and entirely natural. Early films were short - around eleven minutes on average - but they packed a lot of punch.

Chaplin came up in the theater scene and honed his craft mainly by observation. His capacity for acting drunk became legendary; his lampoons of class divisions were spot-on. But the thing that struck me, the thing that took his work from caricature and spoof to high art and cultural relevance, was rooted in observation. In the first days of his foray into film, after success in vaudeville in Britain and the States,

He wandered for some days among the actors and sets without actually being assigned a role. Then the moment came. ... He was not yet the Little Tramp; he was reprising the role of stage villain complete with cravat, top hat, monocle and costume. He had become a "dude" or seedy "toff." In this first film he is insidious, wheedling and oddly threatening. When he kisses a girl's hand, he then goes all the way up the arm. That is an early Chaplin touch. He was rpobably the first to do it on the screen. He already has a full range of facial mannerisms, twitching and smiling and scowling. He also tries out a distinctive walk, the ancestor of a more famous one. ... Moving Picture World said that "the clever player who takes the part of a sharper ... is a comedian of the first water."
Observation is the first virtue of comedy and really any meaningful engagement of society. I once heard theologian Soong-Chan Rah tell an audience of missionaries, "If you seek to change a city without first becoming a student of that city, you're not a missionary, you're a colonialist." Acting without first observing is destructive and is ultimately exposed as artifice, as imposition - at its worst, as violence. But critical observation that informs action is almost inherently transformative. The student of a culture, whether that culture is film or fashion or faith or something entirely different, discovers what that culture values, what it fears, what it longs for, what it assumes to be true. Even the culture under consideration is not as aware of these things as its student. We need the student, ironically, to teach us who we are and what we need.

TWEET THIS: We need the student, ironically, to teach us who we are and what we need.

With the release of Kid Auto Races at Venice, his second or third film (the sequence is unclear, but shot within five days of his first film), Chaplin had discovered the character his audience wanted: a Little Tramp, clearly conscious of high society but far removed from its benefits, never welcomed into the in crowd but never defeated by its rejection. He is the outsider looking in, lifting up society's quirks for society to laugh at, making a hero of an outcast.It is this character, who will evolve over the course of many films, who becomes known the world over and who will define the new art form of film.

He is already dressed in a distinctive fashion, with clothes that are too small for him. ... He "hogs" the scene, serenely self-confident of his own image and aggressive to those who hinder his presentation of himself. He is bristling with the desire to perform. He gets in the way of the camera filming the races, and resists every attempt of the director to exclude him. He wants to commune with that camera but, more significantly, with the vast and unknown audience that is assembled behind the lens. He sets up a direct relationship with those who are watching him, both mocking and conspiratorial. ... He is absurdly solipsistic, as if to say that only he matters. Only he is worth watching. Chaplin would maintain these sentiments for the rest of his film career.
Film is barely a thing, and already Chaplin has knocked down the fourth wall separating the actor from the audience. This is, in fact, what they want - in an impersonal, detached medium Chaplin has supplied personal connection and attachment. The audience identifies with him; they cheer him on even as he violates social protocol right and left. Armed with that trust, Chaplin will go on to expand and ennoble the craft of filmmaking; no longer confined to slapstick, the laughable Little Tramp becomes our guide into a world in which the poor cannot escape poverty because the system is hard-wired against them.

Chaplin had learned early on, in his stage career in London, the proximity of laughter to lament. As actress Marie Lloyd told him, "I believe that's what real comedy is, you know, it's almost like crying." And yet this lament that Chaplin led his audience to was never the final word: The young man who overcame adversity to become the most recognizable person in the world would end his films with a kick of the heels and shuffling strut off to his next adventure. In the world Chaplin observed and acted upon, there was always hope and never defeat.

This was Chaplin's genius, and it is a good model for those of us who follow Christ to emulate. We study our society, we learn what is laughable and lamentable about it, and we bring it to the foreground so that it is no longer overlooked. We help those around us to see what must be seen, and we offer hope that what we see will not defeat us.

TWEET THIS: We help those around us to see what must be seen, and we offer hope that what we see will not defeat us.

If that were all there was of Chaplin's story, that'd be a great thing. But Chaplin has sixty-some years to go, and while much of his art is brilliant, much of his life is tragic. The rewards he earned for his careful observation and sympathetic portrayal went to his head. There's little worse than a student who thinks they have nothing left to learn. Chaplin was officious and tyrannical as a director, going so far as to ignore obvious gaffes in his films because he was convinced the audience would never notice them, being as focused as they were on his performance. He was notorious for his treatment of women, most of whom began as muses and ended as used-up lovers. He liked young girls for their innocence, but he repeatedly stole innocence from them. He visited the tenements of his childhood but recoiled at the notion that he shared anything in common with their occupants. And over time this hubris affected his art as well, so that his characters became less a portrayal of Everyman and more a patronizing send up of everyone but himself.

TWEET THIS: There's little worse than a student who thinks they have nothing left to learn.

Chaplin's tragic story has lessons for us as well: our successes in life don't make us better than our neighbors, and the true student of society never graduates. We've never fully uncovered the mystery of our neighbors, and whatever story we might tell on their behalf is never complete. It is always an honor, always a burden, and however we tell such stories, we must always look not just for what's laughable or lamentable in it but for the defiant hope on the other side of it. Without hope, even our most profound portrayals degrade into caricature. Without hope, all comedy degrades into tragedy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Take Off Your Shoes: The Holy Ground of Airport Security

A woman hasn't seen her sister in eleven years when she learns that her sister is dying. A car accident bogged down her effort to visit, and her sister died before she could get there. She went for a walk on the beach and found a long knotted rope. She started untying the knots, thinking about her sister as she loosened the knots and untangled the rope. Six hours later the rope was neatly collected and she was ready to take her place as the family matriarch.

She hasn't flown in a plane since 1987. She just got married, so all her identifications show her maiden name. Her husband, a merchant marine, is at sea for two weeks. Her flight was, of course, booked at the last second. But you have to go, to return and be restored to your place in the family, as much for your family as for you.

I want to call my sister, to tell her I won't let the years separate us. I want to cull the herd of my life so I can quickly go where I need to be in a hurry. I want to say something more profound and resonant than "She's in a better place" and "She's looking down on you in love" or "I'll be praying for you," as much because that can't really be comforting, even though she's clearly comforted by it, as because I must be a better wordsmith, a more sophisticated thinker, than that.

I've got nothing. I just offer my prayers and nod in agreement. Her sister is in a better place than the place where she contracted lung cancer and lost touch with her sister for more than a decade. She is looking down in love, because love is the thing that survives death.

We're in line together at security, and the TSA agent is wonderfully compassionate, even though she thought we were a couple when clearly I'm younger and could do better, right? And then we are through security and she's going to concourse N and I'm going to concourse C. I say goodbye and she doesn't hear me because she's in her own head. I haven't made a friend; I've just made my way through the security line. And it's not even 7am yet. But the world spins madly on, and the finger of God holds the axis steady, and my shoes are off, because the place where I am standing is holy ground.